The Bakerloo Line on London’s underground system, the “Tube,” is often described by unfair people as the “Boredom Line.” If a Tube line can ever be fashionable, this one ain’t it.
Bakerloo takes you to important and worthy destinations; its carriages are elderly; and, let’s just admit it, none too clean. And, boringly, Boredom Line trains seem never to break down.
Other more illustrious and preening lines do stop running, usually at key moments when you really need to get somewhere fast. They do that precisely to remind you of their grand Tubery and the key role they play in keeping the world’s greatest city moving.
Not so old Bakerloo. It is ploddingly efficient. It stops at stations where absolutely nobody gets on or off. In the central section, passing through such landmark halts as Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square, Bakerloo’s steel wheels grind against rail on tight turns, a squealing, ear-splitting metallic protest that is ignored each and every day by all on board—except tourists who, sadly and mistakenly, cover their ears and even smile for goodness sake.
The Tube’s signature public-address announcement, “Mind the Gap,” is loudest and most portentous on Bakerloo perhaps because the gap is widest on this line, so tight are those curves on its platforms. Londoners have a sense that were Bakerloo not there, they wouldn’t miss it, but at the same time accept Bakerloo’s indispensability. It is the solid, reliable colleague at work who softly goes home at 5 p.m. (probably on the Bakerloo) and who quietly demurs, without causing any offense, when a Friday night pint after work is suggested.
That is, until this week.
Other more illustrious and preening lines do stop running, usually at key moments when you really need to get somewhere fast.
Astoundingly, the Bakerloo Line became the venue for a “rave”—a full-fledged disco event, complete with flashing lights, blasting sound system and D.J. No one in their right mind, should they ever pause to consider the possible locations for an outbreak of Tube anarchy, would have considered the Bakerloo Line an option, but there it was.
Passengers, or “customers” as Transport for London keeps trying to call us, were caught on closed circuit TV cameras, which are everywhere in London, smiling, waving their arms and even dancing to the beat. These astonishing scenes have already gone viral on YouTube. The party lasted from Embankment station by the Thames all the way to Paddington, where British Transport Police brought this anarchy in the U.K. to a stop.
One of the transit rave’s organizers, Discoboy, described “a great atmosphere” on Bakerloo. “The police shut it down, but they were cool about it,” he told media.
Minding the rap, London metro police wavered, nearly entering into the spirit of things before issuing their standard po-faced response: “Whilst officers relish any opportunity to experience underground drum and bass, we'd kindly ask D.J.s to refrain from using the Tube as a pop-up club. It may be the Easter Holiday, but there is a time and a place and we'd ask everyone to consider other passengers using the network.”
Other lines are bound to retaliate. It is not part of the natural order of things, London-style, for the Bakerloo to grab the headlines. It is only a matter of time before they gang up on it.
“Whilst officers relish any opportunity to experience underground drum and bass, we'd kindly ask D.J.s to refrain from using the Tube as a pop-up club.”
The Jubilee Line’s extension of a decade ago can now deliver you to the fabulous and storied lands to London’s east, rich in spices and intrigue—Canning Town and Stratford. The douce Metropolitan Line sneers at the rest of the system, knowing that the city’s true home is to the north and west, its sleek and modern carriages bringing senior management types to the very edge of the Cotswolds at Chalfont & Latimer and Amersham, environs of warm stone cottages, room-temperature country-pub beer and green things like trees and fields.
The Piccadilly Line is the poor man’s alternative out to Heathrow, often crammed and slow, but saving you the hideous expense of the Heathrow Express. Yet it too scoffs at the Bakerloo with whom it is forced to share several stations. The fast and efficient Victoria Line, modernized a few years ago, runs every minute between edgy, trendy Brixton and North London’s Seven Sisters, where twice along its route there are rumors of Jesuits.
Our Northern Line displays a doubly-split personality. South of the river it is known to all as the Misery Line as, morning and evening, it fails to cope with the vast number of young professionals commuting from the less costly (at least by London’s elevated standards) suburbs of Clapham and Balham. The latter was immortalized in 1958 by the late Peter Sellers as the “Gateway to the South.”
But north of the river, the line changes personality entirely. Not only does it split into two branches—twice, in fact, so that even seasoned Londoners often get lost—but its ambiance becomes entirely different. One of its branches will take you to liberal, lefty Hampstead. Staff serving canapés and chilled Prosecco would not look out of place, nor would a string quartet recital or a poetry reading.
The northern Northern will deliver you a short walk from the preserved house of London poet John Keats or to Sigmund Freud’s house, each now a museum to its famed occupant; or, with a knowing nod in the other direction, towards the tomb of Karl Marx, at Highgate, who famously said that “the philosophers have only interpreted how to get from Mornington Crescent to Finsbury Park, innit; the point is to change at Kings Cross.”
Meantime the upstart Docklands Light Railway, which doesn’t have actual drivers and is constructed entirely out of Lego, explores the fascinating new city rising to the east, a prosperous financial district that may yet suffer after the United Kingdom’s Brexited isolation from Europe becomes a reality.
It’s a nostrum in London that one does not speak to anyone on the Tube. Infringements of this unwritten code are considered egregious here. “Sorry, mate” or “Sorry, love” if you stand on someone’s toe or elbow their e-reader is just about all that is allowed.
Only yesterday, your correspondent distinctly heard a mother shush a querulous child on the grounds that “someone might hear you.” There is an urban myth about plainclothes Met Police officers, riding in pairs, trained to take out passengers who breach the bounds of propriety with impromptu conversations with strangers, but their numbers are small since many had to be redeployed to terrorist watch assignments.
Pop-up raves on the Tube might not be here to stay but could be a sign of a certain low-key anarchy that lightens our days and our Tube journeys. Some Tube staff already cheerfully break the rules about what to announce over the public-address systems.
There is a wonderful Rastafarian platform guard at Victoria who entertains with his rap announcements, recently delighting us with “Mind ya fingers, mind ya toes, watch the doors, they're gonna close." Increasingly, we have train drivers discarding the rule book in favor of gags like “Hurry up and let the doors close. I want my dinner.” Or the driver whose train had stopped making those automatic warning sounds as the doors shut. He simply made the noise himself. Another driver broadcast that he was turning off the female-voiced automatic announcements as they “reminded him of his ex-wife.”
That each London Tube line maintains a distinct character, which starts with their impractical naming scheme, is fact. Not for the Tube are mere letters or numbers, such as New York City’s impenetrable system, which uses either or, even more confusingly, both; nor Paris’s system of identifying routes by their ultimate destination, useful only if you already know where that destination is.
Part of the city’s character for over 150 years, the London Underground itself is something of a subversive fallacy, since most of its 270 stations are above ground. The system need never be boring, even on the much-maligned Bakerloo. Fascinating, if nerdy, facts about the Tube abound. To wit, only one station, Balham, contains none of the letters of the word Underground; another, St. John’s Wood, uses none of the letters of the word mackerel while only two (here’s a challenge, dear reader) have names that include all five vowels.
To find underground music on the Underground is entirely in keeping with its rebellious personality. In this, the Tube reflects the whole of our city and even succeeds, this time, in persuading some of us to smile.